Belfast Telegraph

Hopes rise for single grammar transfer test in Northern Ireland as rival exam bodies commit to talks

By Rebecca Black

Talks to agree a single transfer test system in Northern Ireland are due to start next week, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal.

The two groups which currently run the unofficial transfer tests - sat by more than 14,000 P7 children across Northern Ireland each year - say they are "eager to work together to find a common transfer test".

Since the final official transfer test was sat by pupils in 2008, the vast majority of selective grammar schools here have used tests set by two private organisations to decide their Year 8 intake.

Most controlled grammars whose boards of governors contain representatives of the Protestant Churches accept test scores from the Association of Quality Education (AQE).

Most Catholic-maintained schools accept grades from the GL Assessment tests run by the Post Primary Transfer Consortium (PPTC).

A small number of grammars accept either.

Children who use both systems face sitting five tests.

Education Minister Peter Weir has spoken of his delight at the breakthrough.

Writing in today's Belfast Telegraph he says he believes a resolution can be found "within the very near future".

The old 11-plus was abolished by former Sinn Fein Education Minister Caitriona Ruane.

In response to that, the AQE and the PPTC were set up by grammar school supporters to run unofficial transfer tests.

However, the two organisations have never been able to agree a single test system.

When Mr Weir took on the Education portfolio last May, he was the first in the post since the restoration of devolution to back academic selection.

He overturned a ban on primary schools being able to prepare their pupils to sit the unofficial transfer tests during class hours.

Last October Mr Weir appointed Durham University educationalist Professor Peter Tymms to lead an initiative to investigate whether agreement could be reached for a single transfer test in Northern Ireland.

Following the conclusion of his work this month, the AQE and the PPTC have committed to enter talks - starting next week - to agree a single test.

It is understood that the first meeting will be chaired by a neutral facilitator, and that both sides will agree participants - up to five - as well as an agenda for discussion and dates for future meetings.

In a joint statement the AQE and PPTC said: "We believe this to be in the best interest of pupils, parents and schools.

"The initiative taken by the minister and the significant policy changes by his department offer a starting point for further discussion.

"Both groups greatly appreciate the input and support from the Education Minister, Peter Weir."

Among those consulted were Department of Education officials, the PPTC, AQE, a number of grammar schools, non-selective secondary schools, the Education Authority, parents' groups and teachers' unions.

Today the Belfast Telegraph can also reveal that the Tymms initiative has produced a discussion paper that provides a road map for negotiations between AQE and PPTC.

It has found there was general agreement among consultees that a move to a single selection test would be a good thing, that the existing assessments are effective and are backed by the schools that use them, and that the major differences of opinion about the current two systems centre on who should pay, the number of tests, and the format of assessments.

However, it also heard strong views that the assessments cause families stress and cost primary schools financially.

The report found that while a move to a new single assessment would not resolve all the outstanding issues, it has the potential to make improvements.

"It would have to have the support of the great majority of grammar schools and gain their confidence," the findings read.

"Knowing that previous attempts to make towards a single assessment have failed, it must be acknowledged that any move will not be easy.

"But there is goodwill and it does not, to the outsiders who wrote this report, seem that the two groups are very far apart."

The findings conclude: "It is our view that any move towards a single assessment must come from the selective schools themselves.

"They have the organising power, the necessary knowledge and a desire to improve education in Northern Ireland.

"The backing of the Education Minister will hopefully act as the necessary catalyst for the move."

DUP education spokesman Lord Morrow welcomed the breakthrough.

He said: "For almost a decade, the DUP have actively engaged with both groups to support their work. During any future negotiations, we will stand firm on this issue. We believe selection allows every child, regardless of their background, postcode or religion, the opportunity to succeed.

"Even in the face of huge political opposition, both assessment providers have stood firm, ensuring every child is afforded the opportunity to enter a grammar school.

"I commend them for their efforts and implore them to work together towards one common entrance assessment."

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